Enter Joe Biden in Danville, Va., on Tuesday, before a crowd with a large African-American presence. In forced colloquialisms, the vice president warned the audience that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains.” In the hours since, Team Obama has scratched hard to find a different subtext to his statement, but their mincing of words has only added insult to injury: Every African American in the room knew full well whom “y’all” referred to, and what chains meant — it’s one of the clearest codes in racial politics in the black community and has been for a while. At worst, the word “chains” signifies a retreat to a society where a person’s skin color amounted to a prison. At the least, the word bluntly and outrageously equates ordinary conservatism with racial viciousness.
Biden brought this rawness to a place the Obama campaign and its allies have spent much time cultivating this year. It is visible in David Axelrod’s breathless assertions about a decidedly innocent, non-political moment: a small black child touching Obama’s head in an Oval Office photo-op. It is visible in Eric Holder’s deployment of the Justice Department to a series of battles over state voter-ID laws, and in the New York Times’ editorial-page crusade against all manner of alleged race-baiting by Republicans. (Including one writer’s remarkable, if side-splitting, assertion that Mitt Romney’s blandness is a calculated ploy to invoke memories of a Fifties-era, pre-multicultural America. Who knew?) It is an unmistakable, unapologetic argument that to defeat Obama is to suspend progress on race.